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Novak Djokovic Greatest Fault Was Not Being Federer or Nadal

Novak Djokovic’ biggest crime was not hitting a ball that accidentally hit a line judge in the throat. His biggest crime Sunday, and in life, is that he is not Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic, the best player in the world and possibly the greatest of all time — calm down, Federer and Nadal fans — was kicked out of the U.S. Open Sunday during his match against Pablo Carreno Busta. 

He had just hurt his shoulder, and then fallen behind 6-5 in the first set. As he walked toward the net to switch sides, Djokovic pulled a ball out of his pocket and angrily hit it backward toward the back tarp. It was like a no-look pass at medium-to-fast pace. And the ball somehow, by fluke, hit a line judge. You could hear her try to catch her breath — “Uhhh. Uhh.’’ — as she fell to the court. There were no fans in Ashe Stadium to drown out her gasps.

So Djokovic is gone. He blew it. And under any interpretation of the rules, he deserved to be kicked out. But this is what I believe:

If Federer or Nadal had done it, they would have found some other interpretation of the rules. They would have found a way to let them play.

How? I don’t know. What I do know is that the tennis world resents Djokovic for encroaching on tennis’ gods. He seems to be cursed or something as someone who just desperately wants to be beloved the way Federer and Nadal are. 

Even earlier this year, he ran a charity tennis event. Sounds like a good thing, right? But then he and several others had a pre-tournament party and video shows them all dancing and doing the limbo. Several players caught Covid-19.

Including Djokovic. He was ripped, justifiably, for being so irresponsible.

Before that he upset everyone by saying that he wouldn’t want to be forced to take a vaccine.

Look, I’m not defending Djokovic. What he did was definitely wrong. You have to be careful to not hurt people. He wasn’t careful. It’s just that this was such a fluke. He wasn’t even upset with the line judge. There were no questionable calls.

He released a statement that read as much:

“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the lines person and the tournament told me that thank God she is feeling ok. I‘m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong,” he wrote.

“As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being. I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior. I’m very grateful to my team and family for being my rock support, and my fans for always being there with me. Thank you and I’m so sorry.”

Officials spoke with Djokovic at the net and Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times tweeted that Djokovic was pleading his case:

“She doesn’t have to go to the hospital for this,’’ Djokovic said, according to Rothenberg. “You’re going to choose a default in this situation: My career, grand slam, center stage?’’

Djokovic is never going to live this down. Never. It is the nail in the coffin of his legacy, as if that legacy ever had a chance.

By contrast, everyone in tennis knows that Nadal, in violation of coaching rules, was coached by his Uncle Toni in the stands for years during matches. And I was at an Australian Open match once to write about Federer. He fell behind and took a bathroom break. One problem: He never went to the bathroom and instead just stalled, in violation of the rules, to ruin the momentum of his opponent, Nikolay Davydenko.

It worked. No penalty. No default. Federer won.

The scoreboard for greatest player of all time shows that Federer has won 20 majors, Nadal 19 and Djokovic 17. With the two gods sitting out this U.S. Open, it was a sure thing that Djokovic would’ve gotten to 18.

It’s almost a certainty that Nadal and Djokovic will both pass Federer. Tennis had better get used to the idea that Djokovic might end up with more than Nadal, too.

Just to be clear, I think Nadal is the greatest of all time. But I think Djokovic is treated poorly. He just doesn’t have the aura of Federer or Nadal, or even the same superpowers. Federer floats over the court and Nadal storms it. Djokovic? He’s just ridiculously bendy and stretchy. His flexibility is his greatest strength. 

It’s like comparing Superman, Batman and RubberbandMan.

To me, tennis should be thanking God that Djokovic came along. He has personality. He is human.

He’s a Serbian who used to play tennis in an empty swimming pool to avoid bombs. And he happened to come along when the two players considered the greatest of all time were in front of him. And how did he deal with that?

While the rest of the tour took the court against Federer or Nadal knowing they could never win, Djokovic ran them down. He caught them. He beat them.

But now, finally, he has beaten himself. Just like everyone wanted.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

11 Comments

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  1. So much speculation “if theyd have done this” then the tournament wouldve found a way to keep them. What rubbish. BOTH are not even at the Open this year, Tsitsipas has already lost, and they dont have packed stadiums full of fans. So yer telling me the Open wouldnt want to save the #1 player in the World and former 4x Champ? When they have f**k all for stars to promote already!?

    Your examples are weak too: in either case Coaching or stalling, it would be a warning maybe a point penalty. Hitting a lines person, umpire or ball kid is Always gonna get you DQ”d.

    And it isnt as if Djoker hasnt taken mutliple questionable injury TOs over the years (2016 Open against Wawrinka for instance). Or gotten into ongoing heated debates with fans. So he has made himself harder to like than the other two over the years (plus he has a couple of loud mouthed parents who have pissed off the Tennis world on several occasions).

    But really stupid on his part, wouldve been a cakewalk to #18 if he’d have kept his head. Kinda bizarre considering he had won like 23 matches in a row, yet to lose this truncated year, and was playing Carreno Busta who he would usually beat in 3 easy sets. Getting all pissy in such a match was just weird.

  2. Love tennis. Love great tennis. Joker will plough through this and keep winning. I’m more of a fan of fedderrerer and the coolest back hand ever.

    Personally I wish an American Male would freakin rise up and captivate the tennis world.

    Until then, who cares.

  3. Joker just needs to win more majors than them, and the love will come. He totally has the talent to do it. It may be end up being better for him that he didn’t get this “cheap” U.S. Open since Federer and Nadal are both out. Beat them head-to-head and then point to the scoreboard.

  4. I disagree with the assertion that they wouldn’t have defaulted Nadal or Federer from the tournament had they done the same thing. They would have. Tennis is the opposite of the NFL, who enforces their rules somewhat randomly. They strive to enforce rules equally and even for the top seeds, tournament play is a privilege, not a right. No top player is bigger than the sport and has immunity, regardless of the money or the ratings. I for one, in this day and age, found this refreshing. Tennis still has the ethics that other pro sports can only dream of.

    Nadal and Federer have top notch self-control. Djokovic, however, has moments of volatility. He for the most part has gotten that under control, but once in a while those old demons resurface. He seemed particularly irritated this match and slammed a ball much harder against another barrier before this went down. It was just lousy luck this time that he managed to hit the line judge in such a vulnerable spot. I do hate that some people online are accusing the judge of flopping or over-acting. But it was a normal reaction for someone who had her arms behind her back and didn’t see the ball coming. She wasn’t BAP or a Karen.

    I do not get Djovokic leaving the tournament without speaking to the press, or at least having his own press conference later. That was his biggest mistake. The media would have been fairly considerate toward him had he made himself available as he is supposed to. Now whenever he does get behind a microphone again, it’s gonna be tough. If he at least has a public mea culpa before the end of this US Open, I think that could still help. If he doesn’t, this will be a huge detriment to his career people will never forget.

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